For a few years, I’ve been trying to write a story about a cat. A.I. will not be able to write this, partly because the story is still inside my imagination and on a few rough pages that were originally drafted in Boston, on sheets of notebook paper, as I sat in my daughter’s apartment on a hot summer day.
If I have it published (who knows, it’s a strange story), perhaps some machine will suck it into a system, break down my style, my usage, the themes I like to touch upon — loss and despair, love and hope — wide-ranging themes that, like all themes, arrive out of my own unique human concerns and have fueled me through six story collections.
But for now, this story I haven’t yet finished is inside my imagination, safe and sound, and no machine can make it or conjure it because no machine has been in my head as I wandered the streets of South Chicago, or stared at Lake Michigan from Promontory Point on the particular day I was there in June, or stopped in the parking lot of a supermarket called Treasure Island to examine a pile of snow, left over from a long winter, honeycombed and covered with dirt and grime, which is the image that closes the rough draft of my story; no machine stood with me in front of the Obama house, on the corner of 1118 Hyde Park Boulevard, and watched a Secret Service agent as he approached, another image that sparked the plot of my story, and certainly no machine was with me watching a cat named Baudelaire, my daughter’s cat, as he played on a particular Chicago afternoon, in a particular moment years ago, clutching a piece of string — yet another image that spoke to me through the retrospect of memory.
No machine — and I use that phrase because A.I. is a machine, and no matter how complicated, or even organic, its still-binary, open-and-shut gates may be — looked through my eyes as I took the train to my hometown in Michigan, gazing out over the old steel mills of Gary, Ind., making note of images with intent, storing and twisting them in relation to the pain I felt that moment, riding back to my hometown in Michigan, to my father’s interment ceremony, an experience that reminded me that I, too, will die someday, and the art I create will be all I leave behind.
I’m not going to go pick a fight with A.I., or even argue with the fact that this technology can mimic artwork, or assist humans in the creation of art, but I can say, right now, here, taking a break from working on my cat story, that A.I. will never be able to do what I can do because A.I. has never felt what I’ve felt. It will never move through the emotional matrix of living a singular, individual life.
Memory is filtered and turned around, examined and changed through time, and no machine has felt the pain that sits at the center of the story I’m struggling to create, a story that involves the complexity of race and love and desire that fueled me to imagine the first draft, and that now fuels me as I put it under intense scrutiny, every line, locating what the structure might reveal to me, the secret that I didn’t even know I was exposing when I first imagined it, the surprises that appear as I revise and cover my tracks, pulling down scaffolding that was built to support the original impulse, and in doing so, hopefully, lucking upon something profound, something readers will recognize in themselves as being uniquely human and, in the end, deeply mysterious.
A.I. will never feel the sense of mortality that forms around an unfinished draft, the illogic and contradictions of the human condition, and the cosmic unification of pain and joy that fuels the artistic impulse to keep working on a piece until it is finished and uniquely my own.
Artistic creation is something that, in the best moments, with a mixture of craft and care and release, flows beyond the self and whatever it is that the artist originally intended. No machine has felt the fear and jubilation I felt when I stood alone in the hallway of Columbia Presbyterian hospital — on a sizzling New York day — holding my baby twins swaddled in hospital towels, alone, establishing eye contact for the first time and feeling the isolation and responsibility and love that I felt. Just as no computer system, however advanced, will navigate a complex friendship with a person of another color or culture.
To be more specific; no computer has ever gone to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., with its grandmother to watch the ships go through the locks, feeling not only the presence of the great oar boats moving into position to be lowered, or raised, and certainly no machine has felt the presence of my grandmother in that moment in time, years ago, back in the 1970s, as she stood beside me in a long green skirt and a fluffy white blouse, dressed up for the occasion, and then filtered that moment through memory up to this moment. No machine has sat on a hot summer night, with his head against the wall, listening to crickets chirping and faraway trains while it read “The Great Gatsby” for the first time and, at the same time, filtered that novel through my own family traumas, trying to connect one with the other and, at the same time, unknowingly, feeding a muse that would, years later, make me write stories of my own in my own way.
As I write these words on a bitter cold morning in March, with a cold front sweeping down and bringing what might be the only Arctic plunge of the year, I’m assured by the fact that only I will experience this moment as I sit at the kitchen table writing this essay, and that A.I. will never hear these words appear as the voice between my ears. Originality lies in the conception before the work is published, or exhibited. The truth of art is that the piece released into the world — and taken into the system, turned into data, words — is simply the final product of a complicated, often illogical process and, in some ways, is the least important aspect of the endeavor. I have to believe that at some intuitive level the reader feels this and knows it! They feel the life of the artist around the work.
A.I. will do what it does, just as the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, but we artists will do what we do, which is to readjust and find new ways to lay claim to our humanity. On the margins, where art lives, humans will continue to carve and paint and hear voices and daydream, pulling out of unique lives unique work — just as this morning, as I finish writing this, I prepare to go down into my office and work on my cat story, examining my scenes, rewriting sentences and trying to see what I’m doing, aware that the world has not yet seen what I’m creating, which no A.I. can replicate because, right now, as I sit here, as far as the world is concerned, it does not exist.
David Means is a professor of English at Vassar College and the author of six story collections, including “Two Nurses, Smoking,” and a novel, “Hystopia.”
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